RIM Beats Apple to the Punch With App Purchases on Web

Research In Motion (s rimm) today added functionality to its BlackBerry App World website, allowing customers to purchase and download smartphone applications from a desktop browser, which could increase the number of apps installed on BlackBerry handsets due to ease of use. The new feature comes on the heels of recent jabs from Apple over BlackBerry device sales figures and the PlayBook, RIM’s entry into the tablet market. Indeed, the verbal sparring is reaching new lows (or highs, depending on your point-of-view), evidenced by a saucy blog response from RIM’s CEO, Jim Balsillie, with analysis from Tom’s Hardware.

Jabs and Jobs aside, RIM is by no means the first smartphone company to host an online version of its mobile app store: Apple (s aapl) added apps to the web-based iTunes Preview site back in February, while Google (s goog) demonstrated a version of its online Android Market at its developer event in May. Among these, the title of first to officially offer smartphone apps in a browser goes to RIM. Apple’s web store doesn’t yet support purchases, but instead will open up iTunes desktop software for the transaction. Google’s web-to-smartphone system isn’t yet available, although a third-party site, AppBrain, does provide functionality to buy and send Android software to a handset from the browser.

The importance of the app store update for RIM is two-fold. First, it shows developers that the company is serious about getting apps on BlackBerry devices by strengthening the ecosystem, something it did last month by launching an ad network with analytics. Second, RIM is improving the BlackBerry experience for current and potential customers; although BlackBerry users have relatively fewer apps to choose from — about 10,000 according to Anil Dash — the new store makes it easier to find and install apps on a larger screen. It’s the new customers that may be more important in this case: While the new BlackBerry OS 6 and Torch handset are solid, they may not attract new users away from other platforms, which could stifle sales growth. Without sales growth of handsets, developers, too, could turn their efforts to better-selling platforms, such as Android or iOS.

Although I don’t have a BlackBerry device on hand to use with the online BlackBerry App World, I’ve browsed the storefront in the past and found it to be well designed, an aspect that can help with app discovery. Note that as a daily Android user, I think BlackBerry already exceeds Google’s store when it comes to discovery. So, too, does Apple’s iTunes App Store, currently the gold standard for discovery in my experience.

Combining a solid storefront with simple online transactions (PayPal (s ebay), credit cards and in some cases, carrier billing are all supported) should boost BlackBerry software sales. That would be ideal for RIM because it currently lags both Apple and Google in the number of apps installed on its devices. A Nielsen survey from last month shows that the average BlackBerry owner reports 14 apps installed, while Android users surveyed have 25 apps and iOS owners hold upwards of 40 apps on their smartphones. Why is that a potential issue? More apps sold can generate more cash for the app store operator, for one thing. As consumers purchase a greater number of apps for their device, they’re really investing in a platform, which is another potential barrier to get customers switching to BlackBerry from iOS or Android.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub. req.):